Week 9 — Online Bodies

This week we focused on a variety of online bodies and spaces. We were going to have Ana Voog Skype/chat with us which didn’t work out and in the end we didn’t focus on her at all, and she is the most prolific camgirl that ever existed. Here is the video she made for us!

The space of the blog filled up today with a lot of interesting stories about sexuality, censorship, shaming online, which shows how invested we are in the internet and our lives online. This stuff really affects us. Digital dualism go away!

For this week, we read two historical pieces about the internet—Terri Senft’s chapter from CamGirls, and a series of conversations—focused on the internet as an embodied space, and the ways in which particular bodies embody the internet (before the internet was mobile). We unpacked reductive and oppressive ideas about narcissism, shaming others and their bodies through modes of surveillance, and viewing the expression of sexuality as frivolous and lacking in political valence. The two historical pieces are meant to help you reflect on the way we function on the internet today — particularly around social media, identity and image sharing. I assigned the series of emails to you, to demonstrate that forms of knowledge do not just come in published books, articles, and or distributed films. It is important that we take narratives, and epistolary exchanges just as seriously, and these are important for our thinking. They are also primary research material. Particularly to read first-hand accounts of how people were experiencing the internet and themselves online in that space in the early days. We also briefly looked at contemporary artist Jillian Mayer and a community of women attempting to circumvent censorship online.

We looked at the ways in which surveillance, self-surveillance, and sousveillance is enacted on the internet, and the way we police other people’s behaviours on social media, and in the ways that internalize ideologies and self-monitor our own behaviour.

Until the late 1990s, being on the Internet typically meant communicating with peers, on Usenet discussion forums, IRC, multiple player massive text based online environments/games.  What’s important for us is that in 1995, the Mosaic web browser was the first to allow the ability for inline images, rather than them opening up separately in a new window. This started the internet as we know now —a visually based media. 

We presented the history of the practice of webcamming recognizing the importance that these women (cam girls) built the very web platforms they used to distribute their work: it is not simply that there were no templates that made the upload and distribution of images readily accessible (like Squarespace, Tumblr, WordPress); the development of a culture of online content sharing of any form was contemporaneous with the construction of the platforms used for such practices. There was no Kickstarter or Patreon to ask people for funding and/or money.

These users built their own spaces, their own communities, they built space where there was no space for them. We must ask ourselves why we judge these experiences, as narcissistic as opposed to other forms of expression? Why is that when a woman wants to control her own image it is seen as narcissistic?

In Chapter 1 “Keeping It Real on the Web: Authenticity, Celebrity, Branding,” of her book on CamGirls,  Theresa Senft, who is also a phenomenologist, considers the ideology of bodies, self-representation and publicity, which for camgirls translates into three tactical modes. For us, it is useful in thinking about the online experience today.

  1.  theatrical authenticity
    1. To unpack theatrical authenticity we focused on the real/virtual binary and also unpacked some ideas from internet theorist and philosopher Sherry Turkle and how she perpetuates the mind/body split and digital dualism with her ideas of the second self and the hierarchy of offline/online experience.
  2. self-branding
    1. Self-branding is significantly different from the use of brands as identity markers, since it actively teaches people to view active identity construction as a product. Thus, people define themselves both through brands and as brands. We can see how this played out with certain Instagram profiles of people who have many followers and in turn get sponsorship deals and the way they re-make their most intimate thoughts and feelings to have market value.

      Self-branding requires the careful performance and construction of an edited yet authentic self, which demands ongoing self- monitoring, a thick skin, and an ongoing awareness and evaluation of the audience. Users engaged in self-branding are constantly monitoring and maintaining one‘s actions and imagining themselves through the eyes of others ―a dual gaze of internalized surveillance that is often exhausting and time consuming.

  3. micro-celebrity
    1.  the desire and the practice to present oneself to others over the Web using tools typically associated with celebrity promotion—with the key difference that on the web — popularity depends upon a connection to one’s audience, rather than an enforced separation from them” (Senft, 2007, p. 26).

For the second portion of the class we focused on the complexity of censorship online, and Instagram’s regulatory community guidelines. We recognized that the ostensibly public spaces online are privately owned and regulated.

Currently, more and more web platforms / spaces are changing their regulations to remove nudity from their disciplined spaces. A big move happened recently— Google owned Blogger announced on 24 February 2015, no sexually explicit or nude videos or images will be allowed on the website as of 24 March 2015. However, and this caveat is what is relevant to my research and differs from Instagram, the service will allow nudity if it’s not obscene (a word that has conveniently been left out of the Facebook/Instagram rhetoric) that is —“if the content offers a substantial public benefit, for example in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts.” This line takes its cue from #3 of the  Miller v. California 1973 case. We see Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol 1 ever more relevant.

We discussed the language used in Instagram’s policies as particularly focused on nudity, a censorship mechanism located in Instagram’s value-laden, difficult to navigate, and contradictory policies.

Community Guidelines

The Short

  • 1. Post your own photos and videos.
  • 2. Keep your clothes on.
  • 3. Be respectful.
  • 4. Don’t spam.
  • 5. HAVE FUN!

This short list is simple, straightforward, and mirrors most general guidelines for online use, except for two demands: “Keep your clothes on” and the capitalized “HAVE FUN”. We must question the ideology of Instagram nudity clause considering the pejorative rhetoric of “keep your clothes on”, which is markedly resonant of commentary about women artists. Embedded with moral superiority, the phrase is used as a dismissal of nudity with the assumption that either you are a person who should keep clothes on or that showing your body is intolerable and inappropriate in whatever context the phrase is uttered.  If nudity must be addressed, why aren’t images of violence? “Keep your clothes on”, coupled with the last demand, “HAVE FUN”, works on the assumption that having your clothes off is not fun, and therefore undesirable. It also reiterates a social order, one that creates a certain subject who has fun and keeps their clothes on, which makes for a ‘comfortable experience’. But what kind of clothes and on what part of the body do we mean? How much must one cover up?

Despite Instagram’s draconian content policies, users are finding creative ways of maintaining their practices and ultimately circumventing censorship. By continuing to post images, and to post specifically in reaction to censorship policies these women are engaging in  a layering and folding of the rhetorical field that, instead of negating dominant modes of communication, they augment them. In short, these women’s tactics, the tactics of those on the ground, have a lot to teach us about mobile media and internet use, production, and circulation and typify new forms of production that are salient to us thinking about which bodies are excluded and included in which spaces.

Questions to Consider

  • According to Wikipedia, a “web browser is a software application for retrieving, presenting, and traversing information resources on the World Wide Web“. What would an equivalent world browser be?
  • What are some everyday examples of micro-celebrity practice?
  • The self-branding participant or the Twitter user is constantly trying to perform authenticity in a way that meets the needs of the audience, and is constantly regulated and surveilled. Explain how this happens.
  • Can nude selfie leaks be a form of self-branding?
  • Choose an internet platform. Read it through Henri Lefebvre’s notion of space as three-pronged process, simultaneously conceived by professionals (aka representations of space), lived in everyday (aka spaces of representation), and perceived by everyday people (via spatial practices.) I can give you literature to think about these issues if you need!
  • Given what we have discussed in class, interrogate why we use each other’s bodies & the expressions of bodies as shaming devices. (e.g. revenge porn)

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